Emancipating Tomes: Literacy, Identity, and Resistance in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X

by Zack Dow

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Enslaved and segregated Black Americans faced self-education and its consequences in a way that was unique to their conditions of oppression. The biases within and restrictions around textual materials fundamentally changed oppressed individuals’ relationships to literacy.  

As two of the most prominent figures in Black American history, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X pursued self-education under oppressive regimes, achieving distinguished levels of literary and rhetorical ability. Achieving literacy for Douglass was a life-threatening rebellion that did not compare to Malcolm X’s legal and accessible means of self-education. However, both Douglass and Malcolm X were deeply subordinated by the many academic and physical fruits of conquest, so the pursuit of literacy for both men necessitated their induction into this imperialistic epistemology. In both cases, this resulted in them rhetorically dismantling and combating it.  

On a larger scale, Douglass and Malcolm X are representative of a uniquely Black American literary identity, as proposed by Henry Louis Gates, which is formed through the physical expression of resistance that is writing. In tandem with writing, consuming text allowed Douglass and Malcolm X to learn educational rudiments while simultaneously enlightening them to the broader sphere of their oppression, a process which fundamentally shaped their literary identities.

Black history, Black intellectuals, slavery, self-education, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass 

Knowledge and its material circulation occupy a unique place in systems of oppression. The relationship of knowledge to the object of oppression is foundational to upholding hegemony. Illustrative of this relationship, enforced illiteracy among Black Americans is responsible perhaps more than any other variable to maintaining exploitative systems. Prior to the introduction of the cotton gin, enslaved persons, still largely illiterate, had occasion to practice rudiments of literacy. However, with the incentivization of cotton production spurred by the cotton gin, planters more heavily prioritized the enforcement of iliteracy among the enslaved to establish an inexorable and maximally efficient plantation system. Just a few decades later, Nat Turner led a monumental insurrection that claimed the lives of nearly sixty Whites (Britannica). Turner’s success echoed throughout the South, warning slaveholders of the consequences of power among the enslaved. A new passion was thus inspired for absolute intellectual authority over Black Americans (Banks 9).  

Subjects of slavery and segregation were primed to absorb a literary education in a way distinct from those legally entitled to knowledge. In fact, the very act of documenting one’s existence in the language of the oppressor is an immortalized form of rebellion against illiteracy; Henry Louis Gates describes, “the will to power for black Americans was the will to write; and the predominant mode that this writing would assume was the shaping of the black self in words” (4). The “will to power” of enslaved Americans took innumerable forms, not just literary ones. Moreover, the most empowered, enlightened, and revolutionary Black identities were by no means mutually exclusive with literacy; however, the shape of a uniquely Black literary self, as described by Gates, was inseparable from the circumstances of its inception. Acquiring and expressing literacy for the Black American necessarily produced a different type of intellectual. In My Larger Education, Booker T. Washington explains this process: “Where the Negro has met with discriminations and with difficulties because of his race he has invariably tended to get up more steam. When this steam has been rightly directed and controlled, it has become a great force in the upbuilding of the race” (4). For the Black American, writing during slavery—and even during freedom—existed discordantly with the literacy of White Americans. Functioning as a kind of ostentatious proof of culture or an everyday utility, White literacy reflected a privileged existence. For the Black American, writing was foremost a protest against a physically and psychologically encompassing system of bondage. It was a material retaliation against prescribed identity or nonidentity, and through this retaliation, the Black American pursued self-education as a lifeforce, not merely as an instrument of class but as reified autonomy.  

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The power of education as an existentially formative and retaliatory force occupies an equally vital part of the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm Little, more commonly Malcolm X. Both Douglass and Little were evangelical about imperative education for Black (or any marginalized) people. Despite their fundamentally differing backgrounds, the works of both men demonstrate the force of literacy when applied to a censored and oppressed race. Douglass and Little’s voices are uniquely resounding because of the rebellion through which they were developed. The educations of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X are certainly exceptional in themselves; but the dignified intellectual positions held by both men are not products of self-education alone. As marginalized people, Douglass and Little employed a uniquely agential resistance in their pursuits of self-education. Their achievement of literacy was inseparable from the discovery and resultant rejection of an exploitative, oppressive system of knowledge, which, once uncovered, underpinned their literary identities 

Douglass’ acquisition of literacy is as much a story of cunning and talent as of persistence. First taught the ABCs by his Baltimore mistress, Douglass’ schooling was brought to a violent halt upon his master’s discovery of it. However, Master Auld’s derision of slave literacy only motivated Douglass to continue learning: “The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering” (41). At just twelve years old, young Douglass was not fully aware of literacy’s place in the structure of slavery, but through his master’s backlash he comprehended “what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (41). What his white-skinned brother had taken for granted under the care of the Aulds, Douglass cherished as the sole emancipator. Because of his captivity, Douglass navigates this new sphere with an eye to existentialism, insatiably plunging into the world of literacy to uncover and triumph over his place in the White man’s world. As if forbidden knowledge is not seductive enough to a young mind, literacy served also as the stripping back of a conspiratorial matrix for Douglass. It is in this newly accessible reality that Douglass’ conviction for freedom is fully enabled. 

As demonstrated by Douglass, chattel slavery bore despotically into the intellectual and physical autonomy of its victims in a way that segregation was not fully capable of paralleling. However different the legal and cultural landscapes experienced by Douglass and Little, the forces behind their educational pursuits and their resultant socio-intellectual realizations parallel each other in many respects. Reading, forbidden to Douglass, was not so to Malcolm X. It did not lure him with promises of spoiling slaves or producing violent opponents to the White man. The uncovering of restricted truths, which so excited Douglass, produced the same effect in Malcolm X because of the content of his learning, not his means of obtaining it. 

 Equipped with books “any college library would have been lucky to get,” Malcolm X boiled under the pressure of Washington’s steam, exploring historical realities that explained the lot of the Black man (Little 173). Malcolm expresses his infatuation with this newfound perspective: “No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand” (173). For Malcolm X, prospective resistance, and ultimately equity, rested upon the uncovering of this historical reality through reading. Where Douglass wielded literacy in a world of enforced ignorance, Malcolm possessed truth in an institutionally propagandized society. Enabled by industry accessible only to those inured to colonization, seeing light for the first time as it shines through cracks in an empire, Malcolm’s obsessive pursuit of knowledge was an act of revolution; it was the conception of a living statement against the systematic oppression of the West. With a climactic scorn, Malcolm retorts, “I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in criminal conquests” (177). As Douglass achieved enlightenment under the warnings of master Auld, so too did Malcolm X become enlightened when he uncovered the same truths that Douglass discovered through his master’s contemptuous words.  

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Malcolm X’s imprisonment primed him to absorb knowledge rapidly and purposefully. Apprehending the implications of the West’s violent history, words on a page emancipated Little from the residual bondage of the mind. This bondage, existing fully a century after emancipation, illustrates the disturbingly extended reach of the censorship witnessed by Douglass. Controlling for their differing landscapes of censorship, however, Douglass and Little share an equally unwavering spirit of liberation. 

Returning to the words of Henry Louis Gates, the “shaping of the black self in words,” or more precisely by means of words, first occurs through the acquisition of literacy. Before establishing literary and thus materialized personal identities, Douglass and Malcolm X began to uncover and develop both personal and communal identities through the consumption of text. Before their ink ever immortalized itself on a page, the very study of Black people, or even of the interactions of White and non-White people, allowed the men to develop a raced existentialism that simultaneously eradicated Darwinian racism while uncovering its own place within the sphere of White hegemony. The development of personal literary identities for Douglass and Malcolm X necessarily followed a broader understanding of racial relationships and the contemporary lots of Black Americans. Only after this larger “black self” was discovered through words was it materialized by means of words, i.e., by a literary “will to power.” 

Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, extraordinary though they are, are not alone in their self-education. From the earliest days of enslavement, those in bondage have persisted. Following legal emancipation, Black Americans continued to besiege the fortress erected around education, one of slavery’s new fronts. By nature of its often-illicit pursuit, knowledge to the Black American could not merely be the same utility it was to the privileged, nor the mark of distinguished birth. Knowledge in a nation built upon the backs of the legally ignorant and indescribably abused is the first step from the depths of oppression. University of Pennsylvania professor Heather Williams notes, “education would be essential to [Black people’s] ability to concretize their still ephemeral freedom, and black convention delegates wanted powerful whites to know that African Americans refused to revert to positions of subservience” (77). First understanding the history of their subservience and the means by which they were relegated to this status, Black Americans could gradually rise from their enslaved origins, taking with them the pride of an illegal literacy. Encapsulated in Douglass’ cunning persistence and Little’s unbridled diligence is the reifying of an arduously taken freedom; the fruitful and complete existence that is understanding one’s lot, whether just or wicked. 

It is difficult to imagine a greater crime than instilling a people with utter purposelessness, which is what enforced ignorance, prohibition of the sentience every human being is equally entitled to, intends to produce. A unique sense of existentialism, accomplished through an at least attempted understanding of one’s condition on this planet, is among the multitude of basic human rights that slavery attempted to strip from the Black American. Documenting Black Americans’ triumph over slavery’s oppressive hand, Booker T. Washington writes, “never in the history of the world has a people, coming so lately out of slavery, made such efforts to catch up in the civilization about them” (288). The self-education of Douglass and Malcolm X, not to mention the innumerable others who willfully emerged from ignorance, is a testament enough to Washington’s optimism. Even where literary education could not be achieved, Black Americans still established strong communities and developed their unique place in the world. Where literary education could be achieved, Black intellectuals wielded the pen with prowess and learning afforded only to those for whom education had to be taken.  

Works Cited 

Banks, William M. Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nat Turner”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 Sep. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nat-Turner

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. 

Gates, Henry Louis (Editor). Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century. Pantheon, 1991. 

Little, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove, 1966. 

Washington, Booker T. My Larger Education. Doubleday, Page & Company, 1911. 

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. The University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 

Citation Style: MLA